For the third time in my life, I am an immigrant. As third times tend to go, this one has been a charm.
When Rob and I moved to Norway, we official took up immigrant status as we looked for housing, employment, and opened bank accounts. We are not native to this land and we join some other 815,000 other people (or about 15.6% of the population) who are immigrants like us. But, we are actually not like most of those other people because we are what I will call “welcomed immigrants”. Norway wants us to be here; in fact, they’ve invited us via my contract as a PhD student and are willing to pay us a previously unfathomable sum of money for me to study here. Rob has easily found work (which is not very common, but was very lucky for us), and we have faced essentially zero harassment, discrimination, or other such challenges related to our non-national status. This is a tricky subject, because as we are here on the good grace’s of Norway’s government I am hesitant to write critically of our host country. But, what I really want to talk about isn’t necessarily a criticism of Norway or her people, but rather an insight into what it’s like to immigrate to a country that is not your own, and just how incredibly difficult that process is.
America has been talking a lot about immigration in our pre-pre-election coverage. Coming from a nation that is literally, in every sense of the word, based and founded upon immigrants, I am shocked by the anti-immigrant rhetoric I see so often in our national media. In particular, I’m shocked by the expectations people place on immigrants to assimilate and become part of American culture, especially since America is such a melting pot of culture. Indeed, we have prided ourselves on that very aspect of American life for generations. Did you know that about 13% of our population is made up of recent immigrants? If you add in children born to first generation immigrants, that number jumps to 25%. One-quarter of Americans have a close relationship to life and culture outside of America. That’s a big deal, but does it necessarily mean it’s a bad deal? I’m inclined to say it does not. I think the root issue of what people are truly concerned about has much more to do with how we perceive immigrants to be as people, as cultures, and as the dark and mysterious “other” that we’ve taken essentially no time to understand. I think we are afraid of change.
As an American here in Norway, we are considered “good immigrants”. Rob and I were invited to live here, we have jobs, we pay taxes, we contribute productively to Norwegian society. We are indescribably fortunate to be native English speakers living in a country where nearly everyone speaks fluent English as a second language (further demonstrating that speaking more than one language does not, in fact, cause a mass downfall of societal mores). We are lucky to ‘look’ Norwegian. We are from a country that has good diplomatic relations with Norway. We are not, however, perfect. Or even really that great.
After a month of living here, we know that we are unlikely to achieve any sort of fluency in Norwegian. We had great intentions to try when we arrived, but we didn’t count on the fact that it’s really tough to find resources to learn a new language, even in a system as generous as Norway’s. Norwegian classes for us are either A) expensive, B) poorly timed (like in the middle of the workday), or C) very, very difficult to get into (the local university refuses to allow me to enroll in a class until I am a degree seeking student at their institution, which just isn’t feasible seeing as I’m already a PhD student at a different institution). We are fortunate to be pulling in two different sources of income, yet we find it tough to afford the monthly fees for a Norwegian class. In short, we are not very good immigrants, and are largely riding off of qualities we are lucky to have but have done nothing to earn.
And that’s something I had never really thought about before I moved here: how hard it is to immigrate. I had never considered what it would be like to try to learn English as a non-English speaking immigrant to America. While I’m not from a town that sees a lot of foreign immigrants moving in, I’m not sure I know of any place that offers regular English classes for beginners. Here in Norway, we are functionally illiterate and only get by because we happen to speak the next best language for Norway. For people from other parts of world moving here (or to America), they are SOL at the grocery store. Is this flour? What kind of flour? Why are there five kinds of something that looks like flour? Is this good for making cookies? I don’t know! Let’s just throw it in the cart and hope for the best! Don’t speak English or Norwegian? Have a great time figuring out the government websites that tell you where to get your national ID card, where to register your address, and how to pay taxes. Being a foreigner is really tough for the first few months, and it’s even tougher when you have no second language to fall back on, no cultural reference for how this new society functions, and no one to help you through all the legal steps to stay in a country legally. I have no idea how the immigration system works in America, but I can’t imagine it’s simple, easy, or expedient.
Now, before you get the wrong idea, we’ve had a really wonderful experience immigrating to Norway. People have been nothing but helpful, we’ve had ‘sponsors’ to guide us along the way, smart phones to navigate the streets, and English to fall back on when all else failed. We’re also white. We’re married. We’re not of any discernible religion that has negative connotations in the Western world. We have, quite literally, nearly every possible social construct of a “good immigrant” working in our favor, and Norwegians are willing to look past our ‘bad immigrant’ qualities. And still, it has been challenging making our finances stretch until all the proper paperwork was in place to cash a paycheck and pay our electric bill.
I tell you all of this because last week I made a friend of sorts. Her name is Bano, and when she was eight years old she immigrated to Norway from Iraq. Her family were refugees, and she has lived in Norway ever since. We met because she responded to a poster I had hung up at the local college asking for someone to exchange English lessons for Norwegian lessons. She speaks Arabic, Norwegian, and English beautifully, and is an excellent example of someone who has tried their very hardest to (successfully) integrate into Norwegian culture. Still, she wears Muslim garb and is decidedly not a blue-eyed, blonde-haired woman. In the minds of some Norwegians, she is a “bad immigrant”. The wrong kind. The wrong color. The wrong country of origin. Yet, she is much more of a “good immigrant” than I ever plan to be.
Then, last night when I was walking home I passed a dark-skinned man playing the accordion in the cold, trying to earn a little change. A woman who I presumed to be his wife was standing a few feet away in the corner of a building, her hair wrapped in a head scarf, watching him but trying to appear out of the way. I dug into my pocket and left him the small change I had. He was a talented musician and my American values tell me that it’s good to reward true effort, but I also looked at him and his wife and thought there but for the grace of God go I.
All of the benefits Rob and I enjoy aren’t benefits but privilege, and we are ripe with it – totally unearned. I never realized how little I knew or understood my own privilege until I moved here. I thought I understood it in Zambia, but I was wrong. There were so many differences between me and the people we lived with in our little Zambian village that it seemed hard to draw the line between privilege and good ol’ fashioned hard work and initiative. I felt lucky, but privileged? Maybe.
Living here, I am the same as many of my fellow immigrants, yet there are things about me (and Rob) that we benefit from, daily, that have nothing to do with our own efforts. Sure, being here as a PhD student is a reflection of my academic qualifications, but the ease at which we live here doesn’t. And now, I recognize that my ability to earn those academic qualifications was probably significantly easier for me because of those same privileges that make immigrating to Norway easier, too. It’s everywhere, this privilege of ours, and I am finding myself constantly shocked at how rife my life is with it, and how unfair it feels.
Living abroad and receiving America through media and interactions with friends, I fear for who we are becoming as our nation experiences another shift in demographic and generation. I fear that we are guilty of the same assumptions made about Bano and myself, or the accordion man on the street; that some of us are good and some of us are bad, and there isn’t really a good reason to assume either. We have made these decisions on what I consider to be nearly baseless assumptions about people based on their color, culture, religion, and country of origin. We, immigrants ourselves perhaps a few generations removed, seem to have forgotten the fear and confusion and loneliness that comes with picking up your roots and crossing the border, and though we fiercely demand that immigrants adapt, assimilate, and acquiesce, we have not made that process easy, efficient, or in some cases possible. More than that, I feel Americans have grown so comfortable in our land of opportunity that we forget why our own ancestors emigrated in the first place.
When Americans forget where they come from, they forget who they are. I fear we are forgetting ourselves, and in doing so we are forgetting how to empathize with those who are us, but for the grace of God, or privilege.